I thought it might be interesting to delve into some drumstick history and discover where it all started. This is part of a chapter on drumstick history from my book The Drum: A History. Click on the book cover image below to view the book. If you like this article and want to know more, or have an interest in any other part of the drum’s history, then you will probably find the book of interest.
If you need help choosing drum sticks, check out THIS ARTICLE.
To a drummer, their hands are an extension of their mind. They may have the most advanced and innovative ideas in their heads but unless this can be communicated through the hands and on to the drum, the idea is all but useless. But between our hands and the drum is the all important drum stick through which our rhythmic ideas are conveyed.
But when does drumstick history begin?
It could be speculated that wooden beaters have been used since the earliest drummers many thousands of years ago but of course the wood would have vanished without a trace. It doesn’t take a hugely imaginative mind to appreciate how early man may have picked up a nearby stick or bone and struck his recent invention; an animal skin stretched over a hollow vessel. In fact it’s harder to imagine that he wouldn’t have done so. Beyond speculation we have the middle ages depictions of pipe and taborers clearly showing the use of a stick from the 14th century CE. Before that the Mehteran’s davul playing style utilised thick and thin sticks before reaching Europe.
Click on cover to view book
But some of the earliest evidence might be that found in Kazakhstan and China, such as a, “Single-headed drum played gently by hand and drumstick as we see at Astana and Bazaklik (both dated to c. 7th-8th century A.D).” 1
Many different woods have been used over the years. In Europe during the 18th century, beef wood was a popular choice and towards the end of the 19th century, ebony was used extensively for military side drummers who needed a heavy stick on their heavy calf skin heads. The wood and size of stick was also very dependant on their application. Orchestral sticks have always been lighter than military side drum sticks, although with synthetic heads the marching drummer’s stick has reduced somewhat. Kit drummers often use even lighter sticks than orchestral players, although this is again largely dependant on style. The heavy metal drummer is likely to opt for a much heavier stick, even using materials such as metal, and sometimes turning the stick around in their hand so that the larger butt end makes contact with the drum head.
One major manufacturer of drumsticks is the American company Regal Tip and their innovative founder Joe Calato who made his biggest mark on the industry in 1958 when he devised the nylon tip. Observing how drum sticks in good condition often suffered from damaged tips, rendering them useless, he used a nylon tip, which offered much improved strength and a brighter, more articulate sound. This has since been adopted by most drum sticks brands, although wood tip is still offered as many drummers prefer the warmer, more organic sound. In 2003 Regal Tip released their 21st century version of the nylon tip in the form of the E-Series stick. This stick involved a nylon tip with several grooves cut in around the circumference in an effort to maintain the benefits of a nylon tip but to offer a warmer, darker sound. Although the use of ‘E’ in the name suggests an electronic element to the product, it is actually due to the profile of the stick resembling the letter E.
Another major American manufacturer is Pro Mark, founded by Herb Brochstein, a drummer and drum shop owner from Houston. After a chance meeting with a passing Japanese salesman, Brochstein bought several pairs of drumsticks made from an unknown Japanese wood. He was very impressed with the clarity of tone from this wood, as was an early endorser named Billy Gladstone. Brochstein soon began employing the responsible Japanese craftsmen to make his own designs with their highly skilled and consistent hand carving technique. He became the first to import these Shira Kashi white Japanese oak sticks and the company grew. Today they also offer American maple and hickory woods, cut with sophisticated machinery.
Such machinery has helped to overcome the problem of warped or inconsistent sticks. When purchasing sticks, most drummers will roll them along a flat surface to detect any imperfections and tap the sticks together in such a way as to determine the fundamental tone of each stick, ensuring that they are the same and therefore their notes on the drum will be consistent.
Another interesting design was conceived in the late 20th century when Leonice Shinneman of California filed a patent for his special effects mallet in 1983. It consisted of a head made of soft vinyl in the shape of an ellipsoid rather than the spherical shape that many mallets are produced in. When dragged across a drum, the mallet was designed to produce an even drum roll, thus doing the work of two hands with just one.
Generally however, drum sticks for the side drum and drum kit share the common design features that make up their shape. These are the butt (bottom end), shaft (straight area, which the hand grips), shoulder (tapered area), and tip (which strikes the drum head). The tapered area could be very gradual on a lighter drum stick or very severe on a heavier stick.
As mentioned with Calato’s bright sounding nylon tip, the timbre can dramatically change depending on the tip of the stick. Many different shapes and sizes are offered in this market but the popular types are a round tip, olive tip, barrel tip or pointed tip. The round tip is bright and focused, the olive tip offers full, low tones and increased durability, the barrel and pointed tips both offer a medium tone, although the barrel has more focus due to it’s decreased contact area.
With so many stick options it can be a confusing choice for a drummer selecting a pair of drumsticks. Although many manufacturers use their own codes to label sticks, a universally recognised numbering system has been in place since the 20th century. Manufacturers still vary slightly on the sticks that they make within this system but it does give the consumer a rough guide as to what they’re looking for. A familiar name in the drumming community was instrumental in this numbering system; a Mr. William F. Ludwig. The system actually involves a letter and a number assigned to the stick. The letter refers to the intended application of the stick and the options were S, A, and B. The A stood for orchestra and was chosen due to Ludwig’s preference of the letter and displeasure at the aesthetic quality of the printed letter O. These sticks were the lightest and intended for big band type group playing. The B stood for band, with the intended use of brass bands and symphonic concert bands. These were heavier than the A sticks but still able to play at softer dynamics. The third letter, S stood for street and were the largest and heaviest available. Street uses included marching band and drum corps. The accompanying number simply refers to the circumference of the stick and popular numbers are five, seven, and two. The larger the number, the smaller the circumference and so 5A are a very popular choice as the standard beginners drum stick for drum kit applications. For younger drummers who require a lighter stick, 7A is a popular choice.
- Singh, Udai Vir, ed. “The late Harappan and other Chalcolithic cultures of India: a study in inter-relationship.” (Papers presented at the VI annual congress of the Indian Archaeological Society and the seminar, Kurukshetra, 19th-21st Nov 1972) 135.